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Recognizing and Helping a Student in Distress

Assisting a Distressed Student  |  Assisting a Disruptive Student  |  Dealing with Suicidal Crisis  |  Assisting a Student Veteran  |  Tips for Communicating Concern and Referrals  |  Coping Strategies for You!

College students typically encounter a great deal of stress (e.g. academic, social, family, work, financial) during the course of their educational experience. While most students cope successfully with the demands of college life, for some the pressures can feel overwhelming and unmanageable. While there are a number of campus and community resources to assist students, they are sometimes unaware of or hesitant to utilize them.

In your role as faculty or staff, students may perceive you as someone who can lend a helping hand or be a good listener. Your expression of interest and concern may play an important role in helping a struggling student find appropriate assistance.

Below you will find information to help you identity the distressed or disruptive student and develop a helpful response with the goal of getting him or her to the appropriate resources. To learn how to recognize and help a student in distress from the convenience of your chair, take our online simulation training today! In addition, please review the list of campus and community resources provided on our side bar as they can further assist you in identifying, consulting with and referring students in distress.

Assisting a Distressed Student

What are some signs a student may be in distress?

A student in distress may not be disruptive to others, but may exhibit behaviors which indicate something is problematic. The student may also be reluctant or unable to acknowledge a need for personal help. Behaviors may include:
  • Marked changes in academic performance
  • Tardiness and excessive absences inconsistent with their prior history
  • Withdrawal and/or avoidance from participation, increased anxiety around exams or deadlines, difficulty working in teams
  • Changes in emotional states, e.g., sadness, crying, lethargy, irritability, rapid speech, preoccupied, increased and more intense disagreement with peers and instructor, sense of confusion
  • Changes in physical well-being, swollen eyes from crying, increased sicknesses, poor self-hygiene, rapid weight loss/gain, sleeping in class
  • Repeated requests for special consideration, e.g., deadline extensions, changes in requirements, grade changes
  • Behaviors which may interfere with effective management of the learning environment, e.g., outbursts of anger, domination of discussion, derailing the focus of discourse
  • Communication in either oral or written formats that may suggest a threat to one’s self or others

How should I respond to a student that is troubled and showing signs of distress?

For students mildly or moderately troubled:
  • Address the situation on an individual level; consider having someone meet with you and the student
  • Consult with the Counseling and Wellness Center at 352-392-1575 and/or the Dean of Students Office at 352-392-1261 for assistance
  • Talk with your supervisor to develop a response
  • Avoid offering confidentiality to the student should s/he wish to talk
  • Deal directly with the behavior according to classroom protocol; provide corrective feedback and offer to help
  • Encourage the student to use campus and community helping resources; offer to walk the student to assistance or call and make an appointment (Counseling and Wellness Center Radio Road at 352-392-1575 or the Crisis and Emergency Resource Center in Peabody Hall at 352-392-1576)
  • Follow up with the student and update your supervisor

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Assisting a Disruptive Student

What are warning signs of disruptive student behavior?

Severely troubled or disruptive students exhibit behaviors that signify an obvious crisis and necessitate more immediate intervention. Examples include:
  • Highly disruptive behavior (e.g. verbal hostility, aggression, subversion of team work, disregard for classroom decorum and respectful conduct, etc.)
  • Failure to comply with corrective feedback
  • Inability to communicate clearly (garbled, pressured speech; disorganized, confused, or rambling thoughts)
  • Loss of contact with reality (seeing or hearing things which others cannot see or hear; irrational beliefs or fears that others may be conspiring against them)
  • Stalking behaviors and/or inappropriate communications (including threatening letters, e-mail messages, harassment)
  • Suicidal thoughts and/or threats to harm others (may be communicated orally or in written formats through e-mail, assignments, on social network or academic sites)

How should I respond to a disruptive student?

  • Rule out the possibility of harm to self or others.
  • When physical safety of student or others is immediate concern or the student acts in a highly irrational or disruptive way, call:
    • University Police Department: 352-392-1111 if the student is on-campus
    • Alachua County Sheriff or Gainesville Police at 911 if student is off-campus.
  • If safety is not a concern, attempt to deescalate the situation; offer to find someone to assist in problem-solving such as the Counseling and Wellness Center at 352-392-1575 and/or the Dean of Students Office at 352-392-1261.
  • Refer the student to campus emergency counseling or health resources, call:
    • CWC at 352.392.1575 for a student is on campus.
    • Alachua County Crisis Center at 352-264-6789 for a student who is off campus at the time.
  • Negotiate a time to meet and work on a solution.
  • Talk with your supervisor to develop a response. Consult with the Counseling and Wellness Center at 352-392-1575 and/or Dean of Students Office at 352-392-1261 for assistance.
  • Have someone meet with you and the student.
  • Implement the plan and follow up.

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Dealing with Suicidal Crisis

How can I recognize and help the person who has thoughts about not wanting
to live?

Faculty and staff sometimes find themselves talking to someone who appears to be very sad, hopeless and in despair. If the person’s conversation or behaviors suggest suicide may be a concern, here are some suggestions on how to help:
  • Listen and allow time to understand the scope of their concerns.
  • Ask the question: Based on what you are saying about how things are for you, I am wondering
    • Are you thinking about not wanting to live?
    • Are you thinking about killing yourself>
  • Be persistent. If after further conversation you are still concerned, ask again.
  • Offer hope and promote the idea of getting help.
  • Refer to campus and community resources:
    • Counseling and Wellness Center at 352-392-1575
    • Alachua County Crisis Center at 352-264-6789
  • Offer to walk them to a campus resource or make the phone call together to arrange for the appointment or get information.
  • If the student is at risk for suicide, unwilling to accept help assistance and leaves the office, do not try to restrain him/her. Contact UFPD at 352-392-1111 for assistance. If the student is off campus and hangs up on the phone conversation, call 911 and notify your supervisor.
  • Consult with the Counseling and Wellness Center at 352-392-1575 and/or the Dean of Students at 352-392-1261 for additional support.
  • Communicate with your supervisor and develop a follow-up plan.
NOTE: Please contact CWC if you are interested in receiving group training on suicide prevention and/or working with students in distress.

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Assisting a Student Veteran

Numbers of student veterans on campus has been on the rise. Student veterans and their partners or family members may face unique challenges, from living with injuries or combat memories to transitioning from military culture to civilian life. You can help them by recognizing who they are and understanding their unique experiences and needs.

For tips and suggestions specifically tailored to facilitate your understanding and support, explore VA Campus Toolkit. This resource would answer many of your questions and provide you with practical tips to guide your work with a student veteran.

To understand the experiences of student veterans, please read this article named Ten Things You Should Know About Today's Student Veteran.

To learn how to help a student veteran in distress, take this free online simulation training right now.

To familiarize yourself with resources available on campus for our student veterans, visit the Collegiate Veterans Success Center.  

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Tips for Communicating Your Concern and Referrals

Before talking to your student

  • Familiarize yourself with the available support services.
    • Counseling and Wellness Center 352.392.1575
    • Alachua County Crisis Center 352.264.6789
    • Victim Services & Advocacy 352.392.5648
    • U Matter We Care 352.294.2273
  • Inform your supervisor about the situation and build a plan together.
  • Consider consulting with CWC or Dean of Students Office for additional guidance.
  • Reflect on and clarify what signs of distress you have been observing that caused you to be concerned.
  • Allow yourself to process your own feelings. Fear and anxiety are contagious emotions but so is calm. Before speaking with your student, calm your mind so that you can provide much needed calm guidance to your student.

As for communicating your concern, please consider following recommendations:

  • Talk to your student individually while consider having your having someone meet with you and the student.
  • Share your observations. Express your concern. Be direct and specific.
  • Ask open-ended questions to understand what they are going through. And when they respond, avoid judgment, minimization or quick advice.
  • Normalize experiencing distress in college. Educate your student about prevalence of emotional concerns on college.
  • Remind the student that she or he does not need to go through their problems alone and there are resources in place.
  • If you are concerned that your student might be thinking about suicide, say that. As difficult as it might be to name suicidal ideation for you, it is very important to name it and talk about. Please remember that talking about suicide would not cause any harm but avoiding doing so may be fatal.

When referring your student, consider following suggestions:

  • Introduce available support units/services.
  • Normalize help-seeking. Allow your student to express his or her concerns for seeking help. Remind your student that he or she does not need to go through their problems alone. Induce hope that seeking support can work well.
  • Encourage him or her to visit for a consultation or call to schedule an appointment.
  • Offer to make the first phone call together or if on campus, offer to walk the student to CWC for immediate support. Remember that you can walk in to our main location at Radio Rd or CERC at Peabody Hall.

If you believe your student is being seen at CWC, please remember that given the limitations of privacy and confidentiality, we would not be able to acknowledge whether or not your student has received services at CWC. We strongly encourage you to communicate with your student to learn about what steps they have taken to attend to their wellness. Your student can provide CWC with a written release to allow us to communicate with you.

Coping Strategies for You!

Assisting a troubled student is likely to cause distress for you. Please consider attending to your wellness needs as you work with a student in distress. Here are some suggestions for you to consider:
  • Stay connected. UF has many resources to support you as you work with a student in distress. Reach out and utilize the available support.
  • Engage in breathing exercises. Whether you are deep breathing or meditating on your breath does not matter. Time spent engaging on breath work is one of the most effective ways of calming your mind.
  • Get active through exercise or play. Sweat the concerns out. Allow your mind to be distracted by a physical activity for increased mental clarity and presence later on.
  • Express yourself. Whether through journaling, creating art or talking with someone you trust, allow your concerns to come out and be processed.
  • Peruse our self-help section for information or tools that may help you as well as your student.

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Counseling and Wellness Center
3190 Radio Road, PO Box 112662
Gainesville, FL 32611-2662
Phone: (352) 392-1575
Fax: (352) 273-4738

Office Hours:  Mon-Fri, 8am-5pm

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